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Frida, A Nonconformist Icon

11 Feb 2020

Her first name, Frida, is all we need to recognize this famous and unique Mexican painter. Quite often, she’s associated first with her well-known look and secondly with her artwork. Why has this artist become a fashion muse, a status that she has maintained in the over 60 years since her death? What explains her endless modernity?

A creator of images, Frida herself has become an icon. Jean Paul Gaultier, Dolce & Gabbana, and Valentino have all made her a muse for their fashion collections and runway shows. Blooming flowers stuck in braided buns, long dresses with traditional embroidery, scarlet red lipstick, multiple pieces of jewellery, her famous unibrow: Frida’s characteristic traits have been interpreted and reinterpreted through eyes of many designers.

Frida Painted by Frida

“I am my own muse. I am the subject that I know the best.”
Confined in a plaster corset and bedridden for long periods of time following a serious accident that happened when she was 18 years old, Frida devoted herself to painting during her recovery. Her favourite subject? Herself. With the help of a mirror placed above her bed, she produced a number of self-portraits. From a young age, she had learned to pose for her father who was a photographer.

Born to a German father and a Mexican mother of Spanish and indigenous descent, Frida explored her mixed identity through her art and wardrobe. Her style shows her multiple loyalties. She proudly declares: “Soy una mezcla” (I am a mix).

In many of her works, she paints herself dressed in the traditional Tehuana dress, a garment that holds a privileged place in Mexican iconography. This choice of dress isn’t insignificant. It is a piece that comes from the Zapotec peoples, who were a matriarchal society before colonization. They are located in the state of Oaxaca, where Frida’s mother grew up. By embracing this symbol on canvas and in life, the painter was claiming her indigenous identity and affirming her feminist and anti-colonialist stance.

Other traditional elements completed her usual outfit: a rebozo, a long, fringed shawl that she would drape over her shoulders and a huipil, a loose and boxy blouse. In contrast, she would wear modern make-up in sensual colours. The artist wore red lipstick, blush, and nail polish from Revlon, her favourite brand, and decorated her meticulous hairstyles with flowers from her garden. 

We also see her as a pioneer, since she affirmed that femininity and feminism are compatible. Moreover, she embraced her femininity as much as her masculinity. She didn't try to conceal her facial hair and even accentuated her eyebrows with the strokes of a black pencil.

Fashion as a Way of Life and as a Protest

Much more than just an element of her appearance, for Frida, fashion was a way of life. She didn’t only reserve her iconic outfits for her public appearances. She wore them every day, even when she painted, as proven by her paint-stained clothing.

When she met artists and celebrities from New York, San Francisco, and Paris, Frida never conformed to the day’s trends. As a free spirit, she attracted attention with her bohemian style and the eccentric outfits she would wear in lieu of the satiny dresses that were the standard during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Frida, who went as far as to falsify her own birthday so that it coincided with the start of the Mexican Revolution, always wore traditional pieces out of love for her homeland.

Curative Fashion

Besides being a political statement, Frida’s choice of wardrobe also served as an act of resilience. The painter picked and paired her clothing in order to highlight her assets and hide her flaws. Her draped floor-skimming dresses covered the scars on her body and her leg braces. Her loose blouses concealed her chest that was compressed by corsets. The bright colours, jewellery, and flowers she wore called attention to her eyes, hair, and her stately demeanor.

Frida responded to the inevitability of illness and accidents with action and creation. Her corsets, which were objects of pain, became works of art. She painted them to make them into decoration, inventing beauty where there was suffering. And the more Frida suffered, the more she created luxurious outfits, enriched by an abundance of accessories that gave her the appearance of an Aztec princess. Fashion gave her a certain control over her body, and she seized it to create an image that was full of elegance, strength, and grandeur.

An Authentic Patchwork

Photographed often since childhood, Frida developed a keen awareness of how she presented herself. A female artist, mestiza, feminist, activist, and openly bisexual in an extremely Catholic society, Frida created her image similar to how she created a piece of art.

Her artwork and style, inseparable from one another, express a strength of character, a fierce resistance to despondency. Her gaze, both impassive and piercing, communicates her extraordinary determination. In it, we see her fight against the homogeneity of the system: a woman who can be beautiful, yes, but also combative, delicate, attractive, fragile, assertive, and ambitious.

Frida's extraordinary impact is further proof of her avant-gardism. Ahead of her time, she remains relevant and contemporary even today. Generations have been inspired by her free spirit, her rejection of convention, and her rebellion against all forms of oppression, expressed through both her paintings and her style of dressing.

Her artwork, her turbulent and fascinating life, and her indomitable sense of pride have been inscribed in our memory. Many creative minds in fields ranging from haute couture to fine arts have named her as a determining influence because Frida was not only a fashion icon and brilliant artist, but also a symbol of courage and strength.